God has given you one face
And you make yourselves another.
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3. 1. 149)
It is a remarkable fact that in western civilization old age is seen by most people as a curse. According to statistics, more money and time is spent on concealing the signs of old age than on finding ways to prevent heart disease or cancer. One finds more people in beauty parlors than in hospitals. Old age is seen as a defeat. Many people consider being retired synonymous with being retarded. There is a strong sense of uselessness and rejection, coupled with feelings of emptiness and boredom.
This stands in direct contrast to Judaism. How revealing is the fact that according to Jewish tradition it was Avraham who specifically asked, even begged God not just to grant him long, productive years but also to have him show the physical signs of aging.
In Bereshit (24:1) we read: “And Avraham was old, well advanced in years.” The Talmud (Baba Metzia 87a) points out the redundancy of this verse and asks; if Avraham was old, surely he was well advanced in years. What, then, does one add to the other?
To this the Talmud gives a most remarkable answer: “Until Avraham, people did not grow old, meaning they did not show signs of becoming older. And (since Avraham and his son Yitzchak looked alike) people who saw Avraham said, ‘This is Yitzchak,’ and people who saw Yitzchak said, ‘This is Avraham.’ Avraham then prayed to grow old, that is, to show signs of aging. This is the meaning of ‘And Avraham was old.’ “
Avraham, then, was not only advanced in years, but he wanted to show his old age by way of his facial and bodily appearance. In this way, there would also be a distinctive difference between him and his son. This was in contrast to earlier generations in which people would continue to look young and resemble their children. They would advance in years, but with no outward indications, until they would suddenly die at a ripe age.
To fully appreciate the deeper meaning of this, we need to remember another talmudic teaching. In Bereshit (25:9) we are confronted once again with a redundant sentence: “And these are the generations of Yitzchak the son of Avraham, and Avraham begat Yitzchak.” Here again, the Talmud asks why it is necessary to tell us that Avraham begat Yitzchak when in the earlier part of the verse we are already told, “These are the generations of Yitzchak the son of Avraham.”
To this the Talmud responds: “The cynics of the time were saying: Sarah became pregnant by Avimelech. Look at how many years she lived with Avraham without being able to have a child by him! [See Bereshit chapter 20, where Sarah is taken into the palace of Avimelech King of Gerar, who intended to marry her but instead returned her to Avraham after realizing that Sarah was in fact married to him.] What did the Holy One blessed be He do? He made Yitzchak’s facial expressions exactly resemble those of Avraham, so that everyone had to admit that Avraham begat Yitzchak. This is what is meant by the words “And Avraham begat Yitzchak,” namely that there was clear evidence for everybody to see that Avraham was Yitzchak’s father” (Baba Metzia 87a). Thus, the integrity of Avraham and Sarah was divinely protected.
But this came at a high price—the loss of individuality. If Yitzchak resembled his father to the extent that people could not differentiate between them, then a great injustice was done to the very essence of their identities. What is a man if he is not different from all others? Once two people are identical, their personal authenticity is exchanged for false luster, for camouflage and deception. Every man is more than he imagines himself to be. He represents the unique. Parents are not meant to be their children, and children should not be replicas of their parents. Hilary Putnam referred to “the ‘right’ of each newborn child to be a complete surprise to its parents.” (1) Human beings should be told that by imitating they detract from their true selves. Once we deny the uniqueness of all human beings, we breed resentment and violate the integrity of man. Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “To refrain from imitation is the best revenge.” (2) Above all, we must ensure that originality stays at the center of our lives, as an expression of protest against replication. It is stated about man that God created him in His image, not that He made them in His image. In Western civilization there is a belief that human beings are valuable because they are part of the human race, but it was Judaism that proposed the exact opposite—the human race is of great significance because it consists of human beings. This can be true, though, only if it consists of a community of individuals, rather than a herd of nondescripts.
The signs of old age are marks of experience and wisdom. While it is true that wisdom is acquired not by years but by disposition, and that many never live a meaningful life, only accumulating unspent youth and remaining permanently immature even in old age, still, it is true that wisdom comes with old age. How true the observation of Mark Twain that our youth should start at the end of our lives!
When Avraham asked God to make him appear old, he did not just request a “defacement”; he asked for his beauty to steal inward. In that way, he would remain himself with added dimensions.
For the authentically religious personality this is of crucial importance. Religion can be experienced and lived only in a state of originality. Any imitation of fellow worshippers is serving oneself and not God. In essence, religion is an attempt to search for God, the ultimate Original.
(1) “Cloning People,” in The Genetic Revolution and Human Rights, Justine Burely (ed.), (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 13.
(2) Meditations, tr. by Maxwell Staniforth, (Penguin Books, 2004), p. 59.